Search This Blog


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fall 2015 Textbooks

There are many places where you can find the textbooks for my classes, but you can buy them--and you must use paper editions, not Kindle or other electronic editions--for all of my classes by following this link to the PCC Bookstore online service.  Books will be available through PCC's bookstore online by July 31, 2015.

During past semesters the process for purchasing your textbooks through the PCC bookstore included these steps, and it has probably remained the same. First, you should have your course registration sheet with you as you place your order. Next, click on Fall 2015, and then look for EF-English to begin your search. You'll select the course name and number, and then the section number for the class in which you are enrolled.  


NOTE: The prices are approximate costs for the textbooks; however, book prices are always subject to change. Remember: You must buy the paper editions of the books, not the e-version.

latest edition; should be the 4th edition
ed. by Cohen
New: about $35

 (PCC UPD CUSTOM; latest edition)  
by Hacker
New: about $60

Publisher: Signet Classics
New: about $7

Publisher: Schiffer Publishing (July 15, 2007)
New: about $13

Other 1A materials
Los Angeles Times @>
and The New York Times
Go to each newspaper site and read some of each paper online every day;
it will help you with your assignments.
A dictionary and 3 large blue books and a stapler.

1A Field Trips
We will be visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to see the exhibition on architect Frank Gehry.  The cost is still to be determined, but it will likely cost between $20-$50. We will also visit the Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of Gehry's preeminent buildings. Cost to be determined. You will provide your own transportation for both trips. Dates of the field trips are still to be determined, but will likely occur in October. Payment will be due to me by September 28th.

For more information about the LACMA exhibition on Gehry see this page. For more information about Gehry's design of Walt Disney Concert Hall start with this page, and then follow the links at the bottom right corner of each page for more information about the hall's design.

 (latest edition; will likely be the 3rd edition)
by GARDNER et al
New: about $45

New: about $10
Publisher: Dramatists Play Service Inc.

New: about $20

Other 1B materials
Los Angeles Times @>
and The New York Times
Go to each newspaper site and read some of each paper online every day;
it will help you with your assignments.
A dictionary, plenty of paper, 3 large blue books, pens, and a stapler.

1B Field Trip
We will be seeing Arthur Miller's play All My Sons on Thursday, November 5th at 7:30pm at A Noise Within Theatre in Pasadena. We will likely meet with the actors for an informal discussion after the play. Student ticket prices will be about $20. Students will provide their own transportation. To learn more about the production of Miller's All My Sons click on this.

ENGLISH 7 (INSCAPE magazine publication)
Inscape 2014 and Inscape 2015

You can purchase the 2014 and 2015 issues of Inscape in the English Dept. office in C245. The copies are $5 each. Bring both issues of the magazine to our first meeting.

Books: Paper v. Plasma
As I mentioned above, Kindle or other electronic editions are not allowed for my classes. You must buy the paperback or hardcover copies. Why? Consider the article, below.

The text below is a reprint from PRI's The Takeaway program "Paper Vs. Plasma: How the Digital Reading Shift is Impacting Your Brain"
Would you like paper or plasma? That's the question book lovers face now that e-reading has gone mainstream. And, as it turns out, our brains process digital reading very differently.

Manoush Zomorodi, managing editor and host of WNYC's New Tech City, recalls a conversation with the Washington Post's Mike Rosenwald, who's researched the effects of reading on a screen. “He found, like I did, that when he sat down to read a book his brain was jumping around on the page. He was skimming and he couldn’t just settle down. He was treating a book like he was treating his Twitter feed," she says.

Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards "non-linear" reading — a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page. 

“They call it a ‘bi-literate’ brain,” Zoromodi says. “The problem is that many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain.”

So what's deep reading? It's the concentrated kind we do when we want to "immerse ourselves in a novel or read a mortgage document,” Zoromodi says. And that uses the kind of long-established linear reading you don't typically do on a computer. “Dense text that we really want to understand requires deep reading, and on the internet we don’t do that.”

Linear reading and digital distractions have caught the attention of academics like Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

“I don’t worry that we’ll become dumb because of the Internet,” Wolf says, "but I worry we will not use our most preciously acquired deep reading processes because we’re just given too much stimulation. That’s, I think, the nub of the problem.”

To keep the deep reading part of the brain alive and kicking, Zomorodi says that researchers like Wolf recommend setting aside some time each day to deep read on paper.

And now that children are seemingly growing up with a digital screen in each hand, Wolf says it’s also important that teachers and parents make sure kids are taking some time away from scattered reading. Adults need to ensure that children also practice the deeper, slow reading that we associate with books on paper.

“I think the evidence someday will be able to show us that what we’re after is a discerning ‘bi-literate’ brain,” Wolf says. “That’s going to take some wisdom on our part.”

This story  originally aired on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

The photographs of readers, above, were taken by André Kertész.
 More examples of his famous series of readers can be found here. 

On Writing: Your Ultimate Dream

The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

NPR     July 10, 2015

by Anya Kementz   

Why do you do what you do? What is the engine that keeps you up late at night or gets you going in the morning? Where is your happy place? What stands between you and your ultimate dream?

Heavy questions. One researcher believes that writing down the answers can be decisive for students.

He co-authored a paper that demonstrates a startling effect: nearly erasing the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap for 700 students over the course of two years with a short written exercise in setting goals.

Jordan Peterson teaches in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto. For decades, he has been fascinated by the effects of writing on organizing thoughts and emotions.

Experiments going back to the 1980s have shown that "therapeutic" or "expressive" writing can reduce depression, increase productivity and even cut down on visits to the doctor.

"The act of writing is more powerful than people think," Peterson says.

Most people grapple at some time or another with free-floating anxiety that saps energy and increases stress. Through written reflection, you may realize that a certain unpleasant feeling ties back to, say, a difficult interaction with your mother. That type of insight, research has shown, can help locate, ground and ultimately resolve the emotion and the associated stress.

At the same time, "goal-setting theory" holds that writing down concrete, specific goals and strategies can help people overcome obstacles and achieve.

'It turned my life around'

Recently, researchers have been getting more and more interested in the role that mental motivation plays in academic achievement — sometimes conceptualized as "grit" or "growth mindset" or "executive functioning."

Peterson wondered whether writing could be shown to affect student motivation. He created an undergraduate course called Maps of Meaning. In it, students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting.

Students reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles. Peterson calls the two parts "past authoring" and "future authoring."

"It completely turned my life around," says Christine Brophy, who, as an undergraduate several years ago, was battling drug abuse and health problems and was on the verge of dropping out. After taking Peterson's course at the University of Toronto, she changed her major. Today she is a doctoral student and one of Peterson's main research assistants.

In an early study at McGill University in Montreal, the course showed a powerful positive effect with at-risk students, reducing the dropout rate and increasing academic achievement.

Peterson is seeking a larger audience for what he has dubbed "self-authoring." He started a for-profit company and is selling a version of the curriculum online. Brophy and Peterson have found a receptive audience in the Netherlands.

At the Rotterdam School of Management, a shortened version of self-authoring has been mandatory for all first-year students since 2011. (These are undergraduates — they choose majors early in Europe).

The latest paper, published in June, compares the performance of the first complete class of freshmen to use self-authoring with that of the three previous classes.

Overall, the "self-authoring" students greatly improved the number of credits earned and their likelihood of staying in school. And after two years, ethnic and gender-group differences in performance among the students had all but disappeared.

The ethnic minorities in question made up about one-fifth of the students. They are first- and second-generation immigrants from non-Western backgrounds — Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

While the history and legacy of racial oppression are different from that in the United States, the Netherlands still struggles with large differences in wealth and educational attainment among majority and minority groups.

'Zeroes are deadly'

At the Rotterdam school, minorities generally underperformed the majority by more than a third, earning on average eight fewer credits their first year and four fewer credits their second year. But for minority students who had done this set of writing exercises, that gap dropped to five credits the first year and to just one-fourth of one credit in the second year.

How could a bunch of essays possibly have this effect on academic performance? Is this replicable?

Melinda Karp is the assistant director for staff and institutional development at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. She leads studies on interventions that can improve college completion. She calls Peterson's paper "intriguing." But, she adds, "I don't believe there are silver bullets for any of this in higher ed.

"Peterson believes that formal goal-setting can especially help minority students overcome what's often called "stereotype threat," or, in other words, to reject the damaging belief that generalizations about ethnic-group academic performance will apply to them personally.

Karp agrees. "When you enter a new social role, such as entering college as a student, the expectations aren't always clear." There's a greater risk for students who may be academically underprepared or who lack role models. "Students need help not just setting vague goals but figuring out a plan to reach them.

"The key for this intervention came at crunch time, says Peterson. "We increased the probability that students would actually take their exams and hand in their assignments." The act of goal-setting helped them overcome obstacles when the stakes were highest. "You don't have to be a genius to get through school; you don't even have to be that interested. But zeroes are deadly."

Karp has a theory for how this might be working. She says you often see at-risk students engage in self-defeating behavior "to save face."

"If you aren't sure you belong in college, and you don't hand in that paper," she explains, "you can say to yourself, 'That's because I didn't do the work, not because I don't belong here.'

"Writing down their internal motivations and connecting daily efforts to blue-sky goals may have helped these young people solidify their identities as students.

Brophy is testing versions of the self-authoring curriculum at two high schools in Rotterdam, and monitoring their psychological well-being, school attendance and tendency to procrastinate.

Early results are promising, she says: "It helps students understand what they really want to do."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

You can also read this article online at NPR.

1A, 1B: Sherman Alexie (b. Oct. 7, 1966)

Sherman Alexie.  Photograph by Mike Urban.

Who is Sherman Alexie? In addition to posing for photographers, he has written novels, essays, and short stories. Go here to read some of his poetry and watch a video (about 6 mins.) with him. Did I say he writes short stories, too. How short?  Six words short. Take a look.  If the link doesn't work, you might need to register at Narrative Magazine.  If you want to learn more about Alexie, go to The New York Times Sherman Alexie page. He did a  "By the Book" Q&A  with the New York Sunday Book Review, November, 7, 2013.  Check out some of these interviews with Alexie: Time, Iowa Review, and The Atlantic.

Did I mention that he has his own website? He does. What about a Twitter account? Yes, again.

Twitter makes you feel young.
 Here's Alexie as martial artist.

Go to this NPR site and see what Alexie has to say about some athletic events and pop cultural moments. Read this interview from The New Yorker with Alexie as he considers his Lone Ranger turning 20. Also, go to the PBS Newshour page on Alexie, where you'll find videos of him being interviewed and reading his poetry. You can also watch this video below; it is an interview (about 40 mins.) he did with Bill Moyers.

Click on this link to see the Closed Caption (CC) version of
Alexie's conversation, above, with Bill Moyers

Alexie's writing has been honored, but it has also stirred trouble. Check this out: "Frank Sex Talk Gets Sherman Alexie's Book Yanked From Reading List," a story that ran in August 2013. Here's the first paragraph: "It’s not the first time Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been scrutinized for its mature themes. This time it’s New York parents saying their sixth graders aren’t ready for the content in the book and have asked that it no longer be required summer reading." Read more at this page. Alexie also takes his sly humor right to Stephen Colbert, as you can see in the video below.

Alexie loves the game.  Find "Where's Sherman?"
 Your prize: "Defending Walt Whitman"

Defending Walt Whitman
by Sherman Alexie

Basketball is like this for young Indian boys, all arms and legs
and serious stomach muscles. Every body is brown!
These are the twentieth-century warriors who will never kill,
although a few sat quietly in the deserts of Kuwait,
waiting for orders to do something, to do something.

God, there is nothing as beautiful as a jumpshot
on a reservation summer basketball court
where the ball is moist with sweat,
and makes a sound when it swishes through the net
that causes Walt Whitman to weep because it is so perfect.

There are veterans of foreign wars here
although their bodies are still dominated
by collarbones and knees, although their bodies still respond
in the ways that bodies are supposed to respond when we are young.
Every body is brown! Look there, that boy can run
up and down this court forever. He can leap for a rebound
with his back arched like a salmon, all meat and bone
synchronized, magnetic, as if the court were a river,
as if the rim were a dam, as if the air were a ladder
leading the Indian boy toward home.

Some of the Indian boys still wear their military hair cuts
while a few have let their hair grow back.
It will never be the same as it was before!
One Indian boy has never cut his hair, not once, and he braids it
into wild patterns that do not measure anything.
He is just a boy with too much time on his hands.
Look at him. He wants to play this game in bare feet.
God, the sun is so bright! There is no place like this.
Walt Whitman stretches his calf muscles
on the sidelines. He has the next game.
His huge beard is ridiculous on the reservation.
Some body throws a crazy pass and Walt Whitman catches it
with quick hands. He brings the ball close to his nose
and breathes in all of its smells: leather, brown skin, sweat,
black hair, burning oil, twisted ankle, long drink of warm water,
gunpowder, pine tree. Walt Whitman squeezes the ball tightly.
He wants to run. He hardly has the patience to wait for his turn.
"What's the score?" he asks. He asks, "What's the score?"

Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys
as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown!
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him,
trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs
and legendary stomach muscles. Walt Whitman shakes
because he believes in God. Walt Whitman dreams
of the first jumpshot he will take, the ball arcing clumsily
from his fingers, striking the rim so hard that it sparks.
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman closes his eyes. He is a small man and his beard
is ludicrous on the reservation, absolutely insane.
His beard makes the Indian boys righteously laugh. His beard
frightens the smallest Indian boys. His beard tickles the skin
of the Indian boys who dribble past him. His beard, his beard!

God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands
at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket.
Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between
offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball.
Half of the Indian boys wear t-shirts damp with sweat
and the other half are bareback, skin slick and shiny.
There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles.
Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.

Alexie talks about basketball in these two great videos, below. Watch whether you are a fan of the game or not. 

Click on this link for Closed Caption (CC) for video, above.

Click on this link for Closed Caption (CC) for video, above.

Let's say you're not a basketball fan, if that's possible.  And you're trying to figure out what's this thing called the "pick and roll" that Alexie mentions. You can't do much better than to get your lesson from the great Larry Bird (with Closed Caption) and his fellow Celtics. Or if you have a problem with the Celtics (if that's possible) and the old school shorts, watch this video about "the best play in basketball," says Coach P.J. Carlesimo.

What else has Alexie been up to? He gave an interview to The Atlantic, that ran Oct. 16, 2013. It appears under the inviting title, "The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to 'Drop Everything and Be a Poet.'"  You might wish to do the same. Read the poem, that is. The poem by Adrian C. Louis has a line, "reservation of his mind," that gave Alexie the confidence to embark on a life far from where he grew up, geographically and artistically. So, read the interview, too. And the poem by Louis, below. I insist.

Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile

July 4th and all is Hell.
Outside my shuttered breath the streets bubble
with flame-loined kids in designer jeans
looking for people to rape or razor.
A madman covered with running sores
is on the street corner singing:
O beautiful for spacious skies…
This landscape is far too convenient
to be either real or metaphor.
In an alley behind a 7-11
a Black pimp dressed in Harris tweed
preaches fidelity to two pimply whores
whose skin is white though they aren’t quite.
And crosstown in the sane precincts
of Brown University where I added rage
to Cliff Notes and got two degrees
bearded scientists are stringing words
outside the language inside the guts of atoms
and I don’t know why I’ve come back to visit.

O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind.
Chicken bones in a cardboard casket
meditate upon the linoleum floor.
Outside my flophouse door stewed
and sinister winos snore in a tragic chorus.

The snowstorm t.v. in the lobby’s their mother.
Outside my window on the jumper’s ledge
ice wraiths shiver and coat my last cans of Bud
though this is summer I don’t know why or where
the souls of Indian sinners fly.
Uncle Adrian, you died last week—cirrhosis.
I still have the photo of you in your Lovelock
letterman’s jacket—two white girls on your arms—
first team All-State halfback in ’45, ’46.

But nothing is static. I am in the reservation of
my mind. Embarrassed moths unravel my shorts
thread by thread asserting insectival lust.
I’m a naked locoweed in a city scene.
What are my options? Why am I back in this city?
When I sing of the American night my lungs billow
Camels astride hacking appeals for cessation.
My mother’s zippo inscribed: “Stewart Indian School—1941”
explodes in my hand in elegy to Dresden Antietam
and Wounded Knee and finally I have come to see
this mad fag nation is dying.
Our ancestors’ murderer is finally dying and I guess
I should be happy and dance with the spirit or project
my regret to my long-lost high school honey
but history has carried me to a place
where she has a daughter older than we were
when we first shared flesh.

She is the one who could not marry me
because of the dark-skin ways in my blood.
Love like that needs no elegy but because
of the baked-prick possibility of the flame lakes of Hell
I will give one last supper and sacrament
to the dying beast of need disguised as love
on deathrow inside my ribcage.
I have not forgotten the years of midnight hunger
when I could see how the past had guided me
and I cried and held the pillow, muddled
in the melodrama of the quite immature
but anyway, Uncle Adrian…
Here I am in the reservation of my mind
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.

Uncle Adrian…
to make a long night story short,
you promised to give me your Oldsmobile in 1962.
How come you didn’t?
I could have had some really good times in high school.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

1A: David Sedaris (b. December 26, 1956)

Where to get more information about David Sedaris?  Go to his website. See his page at The New Yorker.  Read some articles about him at The New York Times. Listen or read highlights of his appearance on NPR. The Washington Post has a good page on him--in print and animation.

Sedaris talks about his sister's suicide in an interview with Vice. He also wrote about her in "Now We Are Five" for The New Yorker.

Hear Sedaris read his story "A Plague of Ticks" on This American Life. Yes, it is the same essay we are reading in 50 Essays.

What does David Sedaris look like?  See above.  What does David Sedaris sound like?  See below.

Click on this this link to watch the Closed Caption (CC) version of
Sedaris, above, appearing on David Letterman's "Late Show."

Watch his interview with Jon Stewart. With Closed Caption (CC)

David Sedaris has been in the news.  His books are bestsellers.  But are his stories true or works of fiction? Does it matter? Read this article, "As Sedaris walks line between real and ‘realish,’ NPR is left in the middle", that appeared in The Washington Post, May 13, 2012, that examines that issue.

Now that you have watched the video (and possibly others, as well) and read (and maybe listened to his reading of "A Plague of Ticks,") post an answer to one the following set of questions in the comments section:  If you met David Sedaris, what would you like to ask him, and what do you think his answer would be?

You may want to read former English 1A student Omri Avraham's field report, a terrific piece of writing, about her meet and greet with David Sedaris.  You'll find it below on this page.

1A: Omri "Irmo" Avraham: David Sedaris Field Report

(A field report from English 1A student Omri "Irmo" Avraham of David Sedaris's appearance at Vroman's Books, Pasadena, CA. Originally filed  December 1, 2010, 4:42 PM.  Because of the high value of Omri's post, her report is reposted here.  Comments by Omri's loyal audience are encouraged.  Let's turn, now, to Omri's report from Vroman's Books.)

Mr. Sedaris is quite the charming and adorable man, with a pink collared shirt, and polka dot tie. I spotted him at Vroman's sitting at a small wooden table for the pre-signing, actively engaged in a conversation with one of the many fans who were standing in line, now snaked through the bookstore.

I headed upstairs to get my pre-ordered copy of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Although I purchased my book a mere three days after the event was announced, my ticket was only valid for a signing, and not a seat for the reading. Instead, me and about 50 other people were sprawled on the floor at Vroman's listening to Mr. Sedaris read over a speaker system. He sounded...cute. I just wanted to put him in a little box and take him home with me and have him be my own personal narrator and life-story teller, like in that movie, Stranger than Fiction.

He began by reading the title story out of his new book. All the characters in these stories are animals acting as humans; he did this because it turns a boring, simple, daily scenario into something a lot more interesting. A squirrel and a chipmunk conversing can provide hours of entertainment while a man and a women gets...boring. Additionally, he does not need to come up with names for his characters or lengthy descriptions because everyone can clearly picture a duck or a cat in their mind's eye.

He then read an excerpt from a story not included (upon his editor's suggestion) in this book because it was “disgusting.” The story, which of course I cannot remember the title of, was about flies eating vomit and fecal matter while having a legitimate conversation that one would have over dinner. And because it is expected for flies to engage in this sort of poop-eating behavior, Sedaris is not disturbed by his detailed, vivid, and at times gruesome yet hilarious descriptions of human waste.

On this book tour of his, he is collecting jokes from his fans. So after reading some random ones which he collected, and throwing in a few of his own, we were invited to wait around Vroman's for the actual signing.

8, 9, 10pm. Finally, at around 10:30 my group was called upstairs to the signing area. Why would a signing take so long, might you ask? Well, Mr. Sedaris was giving each fan his undivided attention, listening to jokes for his collection, and personalizing each autograph. His remark about my name? “Wow, this is the second name I have seen tonight that looks like a typo! I mean, you can rearrange the letters in almost any way and it would be just as legitimate!” Apparently he has not read The Indian in the Cupboard, but thank you Mr. Sedaris, I appreciate it.

I did not have a joke for him, but I asked him a question instead. Something slightly personal, yet not taboo. What is your favorite comfort food, or something you can eat without ever getting sick of? His answer...noodles with butter (and maybe salt/good cheese). and his favorite ice cream flavor? Clotted cream from a small parlor in London.

So what is your favorite food?

Mine you ask...probably peanut butter and jelly. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Writers on Writing: Ta-Nehisi Coates (b. 1975) (Perseverance)

Ta-Nehisi Coates on writing: "I always consider the entire process about failure, and I think that's the reason why more people don't write."
Posted by The Atlantic on Wednesday, August 5, 2015

You can also watch this video with Closed Caption (CC) at YouTube or at Facebook.
Find Atlantic articles by Coates here
and a story he did on rapper MF Doom for The New Yorker.
Coates was born in Baltimore in 1975.

Coates has received much attention on the publication of his book, Between the World and Me, which was published in July 2015. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has praised it, stating "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." His book has been reviewed in The New York Times, where Coates was also profiled. New York magazine profiled him as well.

Coates was interviewed by Rolling Stone. July 16, 2015, to discuss Between the World and Me, which is written as a letter to his son. [To read an adaption of it follow this link.] His book is in the tradition of James Baldwin's letter to his nephew that appears within Baldwin's book The Fire Next Time. [This link will take you to Baldwin's letter.] Both writers are discussing what it is to be an African-American in the United States of America. Here is a selection from Coates's interview with Rolling Stone:  

How old were you when you first encountered James Baldwin's work?

I was about 13 or 14 when I heard Malcolm X's speech "Message to the Grass Roots." He's criticizing the March on Washington, and he says they wouldn't even let [James] Baldwin get up and talk, because Baldwin's liable to say anything. I thought, "Who is this dude?" My exposure to him was as somebody who was slightly crazy, a guy who lobbed firebombs. Then I got to college and read The Fire Next Time and Going to Meet the Man, a short story collection. I have this fond memory of my time in college – I wasn't a great student, but my time was open and unrestricted. I remember sitting in this library at Howard University and reading The Fire Next Time in one session. It was such a pleasurable experience, to be lost in a work of art. I didn't really grasp the political points. Did I understand what Baldwin was saying about religion? No, not really. But I knew that it had been said really beautifully. I had that. When I went back to read The Fire Next Time, I remembered me as a 19-year-old kid, sitting in that library, lost. And I thought about how in this age, where the Internet is ubiquitous, it's very hard to have that experience. I had this vision of some 19-year-old kid sitting in a library somewhere, picking this book up, and just disappearing for a while. That was all I wanted.

That's not a quality found very often in writing these days.

Everybody thinks that an important book has to be a big, long book. But it was very important that this book be short. I actually wanted it to be even shorter – it's about 170 pages, and I wanted it to weigh in at about 120. This ain't something that should take you three months to get through. I mean, if you don't like it, that's another thing. But it should lend itself to re-reading.

Much of your writing in this book has such a lyrical, poetic quality, even when you're writing about profoundly painful subjects. How did you develop that voice?

It's something that makes me happy. I enjoy the challenge of trying to say things beautifully. The message is secondary in that sense. Obviously, I have something that I want to say that's very, very important to me – but the process of actually crafting it is essential. It went through several versions. At one point I sent a draft to Chris, and it was not working, so I took it apart paragraph by paragraph. This was about this time last summer. I printed a manuscript and numbered every paragraph in the order in which I thought they were supposed to go. Then I went back to the computer and typed up every single one of those paragraphs again, instead of cutting and pasting, because it allows you to run it through your mind again. Once I did that, I had the meat of the book. 

At the same time, some of the best parts of the book are when you're most blunt. There's a passage very early on where you say that the way we talk about race in America – even the phrase "white supremacy" – can serve as a cover for actual, physical violence. Is there a tension between those two aims?

Well, the lyricism doesn't serve if it's not conveying. Chris helped me a lot with that. He'd say, "OK, what does this mean? Clarify, clarify." A lot of the time, I write by ear. So in rough draft form it's probably a lot more lyrical. He'd say, "Ground this. What are you saying specifically?" A lot of times, I actually didn't know. You just have to write, and strip down, and rewrite, over and over and over again, until it's not only beautiful, but it actually says something. It's almost like a melody coming to you before the words.

One phrase that recurs in this book is "the Dream": the idea that America needs to wake up from the dream of race, the dream of whiteness. How did you come to that theme?

"The Dream" is lyrical in and of itself. It's a device, but again, I hope it clarifies. It's subverting the notion of the American Dream, subverting Martin Luther King's rendition of "I have a dream." I wanted to do something a little darker. It's no different than these movies where they say it's a darker version of some comic book story. This is very much the same thing. I just wanted to darken the filter a little bit and take it from another perspective.

How much has hip-hop informed your voice as a writer?

It's the biggest influence on my aesthetic as a writer. It actually influences the atheism in the book. One of the constant questions I get is "Why are you so depressing? Why are you so dark? What about hope?" But hope is not very important in hip-hop. I mean, there are certainly hopeful songs, but if you listen to Illmatic, hope is not a very important sentiment. Hope has very little to do with Mobb Deep. I remember when Nas said on a Mobb Deep song, "Shoot at the clouds, feels like the holy beast is watching us." I don't know if Nas would describe himself as an atheist, but the music has a very atheistic, dark feel to it. That shaped me a lot.

Do you find something positive in exploring that darkness, even if it's not hopeful? Is it therapeutic to turn pain and loss and fear into a book like this?

There's hope in there. There's beauty in there. But it's not a bowl of sugar. It's dark chocolate. It's a little bitter. And that's how it's supposed to be. You listen to a song like Biggie's "Everyday Struggle," which is in many ways sad, but in the middle of it there's this beautiful scene where Biggie thinks he's sold all of his coke, and he's going to see his friend, and he says, "At last, I'm literally lounging black." He feels happy in the midst of this. And then it all goes wrong: "Then I got a phone call that couldn't hit me harder." I think hope that's not cut with some sense of struggle is false. The thing that I can't understand about this question is, what great art would we describe as primarily hopeful? I don't read The Great Gatsby and think "hope." I think it's about the need, oddly enough, to politicize writing, to effectively turn writers into Senate aides. I'm not a fucking politician! I don't have to make people feel good at the end of the book. I don't have to do what Barack Obama does. That's not my burden. My burden is to try to describe things as precisely as I see them.

Coates has been a frequent guest on television news programs. Find links to some of them here.

photo of Coates by Andre Chung/The Washington Post/Getty

Saturday, July 4, 2015

"This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie

performed by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
(acoustic, at the top, and with full band, above) 

"This Land is Your Land" Project from PBS American Masters

performed by Woody Guthrie

This Land is Your Land
words and music by Woody Guthrie
©1956 (renewed 1984), 1958 (renewed 1986) and 1970 TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)
Guthrie recorded several versions of his song. Here is an early version:

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

performed by Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and more
at President Barack Obama's January 19, 2009 inauguration,
on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial